This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATE 6/24: Comcast announced Wednesday that it is also extending through the end of 2020 access to its 1.5 million public Xfinity WiFi hotspots to anyone who needs them, including non-customers.
“We saw a huge jump in usage after we opened up our public hotspots, and we’re excited to keep them open through the end of the year as the nation begins taking steps to reopen,” said Dana Strong, president of Xfinity Consumer Services. END UPDATE
Comcast said Thursday that it would extend its offer of 60 days of free online access to new Internet Essentials customers until the end of the year, an offer that was originally set to expire on June 30.
The company also said it would continue until the end of the year to waive the requirement that customers have no past-due balance in order to qualify.
In his weekly press call Thursday morning, Superintendent William Hite said that 5% of District students have consistently reported having no internet access, and he wondered whether that number would increase if households who took advantage of the two-months-free offer decided, for whatever reason, not to maintain the service and pay the $9.95 monthly charge.
“We’re trying to come up with a solution for that 5%, and that 5% could grow once … the two-month-free service expires,” he said. “That 5% could go to a higher number.”
Hite said although the District is still working out what school will actually look like in the fall, it will be crucial to “solve for the 5% problem” because more than likely, virtual instruction will continue in some form. This will include so-called “synchronous” instruction in which teachers give live-streamed lessons. For the District to proceed fairly with a plan to take attendance and resume normal grading in the fall, students must have the means to attend.
In May, Hite had said that he asked Comcast and other internet providers to open residential hotspots so that more people could get online, but all refused. Comcast said that this solution was technologically impractical and could raise privacy issues. Comcast did open its outdoor and small business hotspots to people outside its network.
Asked what more Comcast could do besides this offer, Hite said the District is continuing to negotiate with the company about expanding access and called the company “a real partner in this work the whole time.” He said that the District has been “working with them on a weekly basis to try to solve the 5% problem.”
His big ask now, he said, is “to continue to work with us to problem-solve and to come up with solutions for how we can address these issues. For some, this may be the solution; for others, [it] may not be.”
Hite said that Comcast “working with us on this process is what leads to [this] type of announcement. … I’m just really pleased that they have continued to work with us to help problem-solve around this issue.”
John Demming, Comcast’s vice president of corporate and financial communications, said the company disclosed during its first-quarter results earnings call in April that 32,000 customers signed up for its free Internet Essentials broadband offer from January through March. The company reports second-quarter earnings, including its broadband customer results, on July 30.
Demming confirmed that Comcast and the District have been in regular contact to work on expanding internet access to all city students.
“We have been talking with [Hite] and the School District to help solve the issues but don’t have anything to announce or share further at this time,” he said via email.
Internet Essentials began in 2011 and has since connected more than two million low-income families to the internet, reaching a total of about eight million people.
“For almost a decade, Comcast has been helping to level the playing field for families in need so they can benefit from all the internet has to offer. So, we’re happy to be able to extend this 60 days of free internet service to new customers,” said Dana Strong, president of Xfinity Consumer Services in a press release. “Now more than ever, connectivity has become a vital tool for families to access educational resources for students, important news and information about their community and the world, telehealth applications, or to stay in touch with family and friends.”
The company said that over the nine years of its existence, Internet Essentials “has grown from focusing on bridging the ‘homework gap’ for school-age children to being deeply invested in providing digital equity.” It also offers digital skills training and the purchase of a low-cost computer.
Since the pandemic, the School District spent $11 million to purchase more than 40,000 Chromebooks to give to students. Charter schools also purchased Chromebooks, and several of them are also paying for internet access for their students.
Comcast said that Internet Essentials “is structured in partnership between Comcast and tens of thousands of school districts, libraries, elected officials, and nonprofit community partners.” More information is available at https://partner.internetessentials.com and www.internetessentials.com.
The accessible website also includes the option to video chat with customer service agents in American Sign Language. In addition, there are two dedicated phone numbers: 1-855-846-8376 for English and 1-855-765-6995 for Spanish.